Sudan: Darfur peace conference opens without rebels

News and Press Release
Originally published
KHARTOUM, 17 October 2008 (IRIN) - The United States, Darfuri rebels and Sudanese opposition parties have greeted a new initiative to solve the Darfur crisis with scepticism and boycotts, while Khartoum, the Arab League and the UN say it's the region's best hope.

Widespread doubts about the credibility of the process prevail ahead of deliberations expected to last three days. "The purpose is not to solve the problem of Darfur but to give sanctuary to [President Omar al-] Bashir from the International Criminal Court (ICC)," said Bashir Adam Rahma, of the opposition Popular Congress Party, led by Hassan al-Turabi.

In July, ICC Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, called on the court's judges to issue an arrest warrant against Bashir for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur, where an estimated 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes since 2003.

Britain and France have hinted that they might support a one-year suspension of the arrest warrant in the UN Security Council if Sudan shows it is working towards peace in Darfur.

"The government lacks credibility because of the last five years," said Alberto Fernandez, Chief of Mission at the United States embassy in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

"There is doubt in the minds of many people - many of the people of Darfur, many of the refugees and others," he said.

He also questioned whether displaced people had a voice at the discussion table. "The proof is going to be whether this event can be translated into real substantive change on the ground in Darfur as quickly as possible, or will it be the latest in a long line of political theatre that we have seen over the last five years in Darfur?"

Like the Popular Congress Party, all rebel groups have boycotted the initiative, calling it "a proposal aimed at defusing the row with the International Criminal Court".

Those who are taking part include the ruling National Congress Party; its partner in the coalition government, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM); and most of the large opposition parties.

The government says Darfuri leaders, representatives of the displaced, civil society organisations and academics have also been included, but critics say the majority are government-controlled groups.

Still, many national and international stakeholders hope this initiative will offer something new.

According to presidential advisor, Mustafa Osman Ismail, it is the first time a conference on Darfur unites both government and opposition parties.

"It is my deep conviction that the end of the crisis and the building of peace must be done by the people of this country themselves," joint African Union (AU)-UN chief mediator for Darfur, Djibril Bassolé, told hundreds of Sudanese politicians and dignitaries from Libya, Qatar, Egypt, the AU, the Arab League and the UN at the inauguration.

Both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and chairman of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, support and encourage the initiative, he added.

"The Sudanese regime is engaging in a peaceful and political solution. That fact, in itself, is extremely important," he told reporters afterwards.

A separate initiative by the Arab League, led by Qatar, to bring rebels to the negotiating table should act as a complement to this national initiative, he said.

In September, the Sudanese government engaged in heavy military battles with rebel groups in North Darfur, newly displacing tens of thousands of civilians. Rebels have been criticised for refusing to negotiate with the government, but this initiative is considered by some a first step in drafting a blueprint that can be used to bring cynical rebels onside.

"The rebels can only be convinced when they see the seriousness of this forum," said Sudanese Foreign Minister, Deng Alor, of the SPLM, the political wing of the southern movement that was at war with the government for more than two decades before signing a peace deal in 2005.

"Now, they are sceptical, they are suspicious, because there is nothing so far," he told IRIN.

"But if we come up with a very clear position, then I think some of the rebel movements - if not all of them - could be persuaded." The participants are expected to come up with recommendations on 19 October.